Final mile introducing new maintenance demands

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Electric vehicles are introducing new systems that shops will need to support. But the last mile could also introduce new equipment in the form of robotics. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz Vans)

ATLANTA, Ga. – Evolving delivery models are leading to a new generation of vehicles as fleets look for new ways to serve the all-important final mile of e-commerce orders. Against the backdrop of dense urban centers that are demanding an end to emissions, the trucks and vans are also more likely than ever to be electric.

“The economics of those are starting to become positive in some applications,” said Thomas Dollmeyer, Cummins’ director of electrification technology, during a panel at the annual meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council. Electric urban buses are already economically viable, while the same could be said about electric Class 4-7 distribution vehicles as early as 2020, he said.

But changes like that will lead to new challenges on the shop floor.

“We’ve got to actually charge these things, and it’s going to have a big and varied impact on our ability to deploy these things,” Dollmeyer said as an example. While commercial vehicles consume between 0.8 and 2.5 kWh per mile, their batteries are expected to store between 50 and 500 kWh. “Fast chargers” may promise to quickly restore depleted energy levels, but they could come with limits on the duration or number of charging cycles. So too could they require three-phase power in the shops that support them.

“This is actually pretty big power,” Dollmeyer said of the charging infrastructure. “You don’t need to get very high in the kilowatt charging space in order to need some pretty capable service for the shop.”

High-voltage systems certainly introduce the demand for new safety procedures and equipment. Anything above 60 volts changes how repairs need to be addressed, observed Duane Lippincott, director of learning and development for UPS automotive engineering and maintenance. “We have become much better and more effective in electric, diagnostic, and computer control,” he said. “We’re also going to have to become experts in high voltage.”

The charging needs alone will affect the layouts of shops and fleet yards. “The vehicles actually need to sit by the charger, and quite often the electricity and the available charging isn’t in the same spot,” Dollmeyer explained. To compound matters, there are already four different styles of connectors for the vehicles, and they are not all compatible with one another.

Of course, there are maintenance gains to be realized with electric vehicles. They require fewer fluids, and have fewer moving, sliding, and slipping parts to break, leak, or loosen, he said as an example. Onboard data opens the door to predictive maintenance or, in some cases, even self-healing powertrain capabilities.

But not every vehicle option will be fully electric. Hybrids might be required to support longer ranges, switching to internal combustion engines when traveling to distribution centers outside urban cores. That equipment will be adding another layer of components on those already found in a diesel engine.

“Many of the hybrids that have been deployed in the past have had maintenance headaches with the fact they were under-engineered,” Dollmeyer said.

Manufacturers will need to do a better job of supporting products through investments in technology, and drive down costs along the way, said Mike Hasinec, vice-president of maintenance support for Penske. “Governments also need to look at financial support,” he said, noting how available grants also run out of money in a few months. “All levels of government need to invest in the infrastructure to make these technologies viable solutions.”

The new equipment won’t end there. Concept vehicles are using racks and robotics to redefine how cargo is sorted and stored, while tools from drones to robots that look like rolling coolers have been envisioned as ways to deliver goods to the doorstep. One concept from Mercedes-Benz Vans includes an autonomous platform that pushes the entire payload into the back of a van before it drives away.

“A lot of vehicles are hauling around a lot of air,” observed Nick Tempelhoff, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans’ future transportation – North America. “A lot of the efficiencies are to be gained on these last yards to the customer’s doorstop.”

And there will be plenty of new vehicle features to maintain along the way.

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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